SALT LAKE CITY — State wildlife officials are expressing disappointment in an appellate court ruling earlier this week that returns management of the endangered Utah prairie dog back to the federal government.
“One of the biggest challenges to managing Utah prairie dogs are federal rules that do not allow biologists the flexibility they need to do what’s best for the species and for the people who live in areas where prairie dogs are found,” said Greg Sheehan, director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
Sheehan added that the biggest concern is the ruling restricts what biologists can and can't do with the animals if they are found on private property.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a district court decision reached in 2014 that granted Utah management authority over the species.
In the two years since that ruling, prairie dogs in southwestern Utah have experienced population increases that were the highest on record since range-wide counts started in 1976, according to the division.
A spring survey in 2015 of the species revealed population estimates at nearly 93,000 animals. A subsequent outbreak of disease last year dropped the population by about 10,000 animals — but the numbers remained the second highest on record.
“State management was a win-win for everyone,” Sheehan said. “Prairie dogs were placed in the best suitable habitat, and private landowners who had conflicts with prairie dogs could ask that the animals be relocated to more suitable habitat."
The legal case for state management of the species hinged on the assertion the federal government lacked authority under the Commerce Clause to regulate a species found only in one state.
Although the lower court agreed with that argument, a panel of three justices on the 10th Circuit struck it down, saying such a narrow application of the Endangered Species Act would erode protections for 68 percent of the species covered under the act.
But Sheehan said the court ruling doesn't do the species any favors and makes management of them more difficult.
In 2015 and 2016, an average of 2,300 prairie dogs were moved off private land in Wayne, Garfield and Iron counties each year, according to the division. Biologists took the animals to public land that provided the prairie dogs with good habitat away from private property, Sheehan said.
Now,” he says, “the management of Utah prairie dogs is back in a quagmire of federal bureaucracy. The state rules allowed us to work proactively, with local governments and landowners, to do what was best for the prairie dogs and those who live with the animals in the three counties.”
Bruce Hughes said he was unable to develop his 3.5-acre property into office buildings and storage units in the mid-2000s because of rules that protected some 85 prairie dogs living there.
State wildlife officials moved the animals over the last two years, and he had permission to kill any new prairie dogs that appear.
"We had dealt with the federal government for 40 years and had made zero progress and spent millions of dollars," said Hughes, a tax accountant. "With two years of state control, we have basically solved our problem. I can run over them with a tractor and I won't be arrested. I'm happy as a clam."
Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, celebrated the ruling as a decision that ensures that more than 1,600 endangered species around the country remain protected. He said it marks a stinging rebuke of "extreme private party rights advocates."
Derek Morton, spokesman for the group that sued, People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners, said they plan to appeal the decision. He and others see the ruling as an ill-advised approval of federal overreach that tramples people's rights to manage their own private property.
Contributing: Associated Press